Albus is a leucistic (having whitish skin due to a lack of pigment) bottlenose dolphin living in the north-western Adriatic, in the area around Ravenna. According to available data, this is the first ever almost white bottlenose dolphin recorded in the Adriatic Sea and probably the Mediterranean Sea. In June 2014, it was sighted during research on bottlenose dolphins that is part of the NETCET project, co-financed by the IPA Adriatic Cross Border Cooperation Programme.
Albus was sighted with another bottlenose dolphin of normal coloration. Both animals were swimming and catching fish with very little care for our presence. Considering their behaviour and the fact only two animals were present, we assume Albus is a male adult, since they usually hunt prey and spend time in pairs or smaller groups. They join females mainly when mating.
Bottlenose dolphins are usually black or grey on their back and sides, light grey on their belly. Their colour comes from melanin, a pigment produced by the cells in the skin. However, as is the case with humans, there are individuals which lack this pigment, due to a genetic mutation; their skin appears white and their eyes might have a distinct red coloration (as blood vessels in the back of the eye are visible through the transparent iris). This is called albinism, and the animals affected are called albino individuals. Cetacean albinism is poorly understood due to the limitations of research in the marine environment. Leucism is a condition where there is a lack of multiple pigments (not only melanin) and the lack of pigmentation is partial, resulting in patchy or lighter coloration. Although Albus is almost white, he has some dark patches, hence we should call him leucistic. There are often negative health issues associated with this condition: poor thermoregulation, oversensitivity of the skin and eyes leading to partial blindness and being prone to sunburn. Albus appears fit, well fed and is not isolated from other dolphins. Considering animals in nature are usually well adapted to the colour of their environment, individuals that stand out are easy to spot by predators. There is a possibility that other animals will isolate “white” individuals to reduce the danger from predators. However, bottlenose dolphins are extremely social and caring animals which do not leave any of their own behind, not even in the face of danger. Bottlenose dolphins can almost be considered top predators in the Adriatic because there are no large sharks that would be a danger to them.
Albinism has been recorded in about twenty species of cetaceans including the blue whale, grey whale, sperm whale, and bottlenose dolphin. Albino dolphins are uncommon and therefore attract human attention leading to some of them being unfortunately captured and held captive. A known example is Snowball, who was exhibited in the Miami aquarium, USA in the 1960’s, and died from multiple diseases just a few years later. The best known albino bottlenose dolphin today is probably Angel– a calf caught in January 2014 in the infamous Taiji Bay in Japan, where hunters brutally kill hundreds of dolphins each year; Angel is on display in Taiji aquarium and its lifespan is likely to be short. The best known free individuals are a white humpback whale Migaloo, found along the eastern coast of Australia and a white orca named Iceberg, living alongside Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia.
Bottlenose dolphins are exposed to multiple threats, most of them from human activities –lack of prey due to overfishing, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, intentional harassment and infliction of injuries, etc. A unique dolphin such as Albus could also be exposed to harassment: rising interest and many people eager to see it leads to multiple boats surrounding it, which in turn produce noise and disturb the animal. Albus will not behave normally: the noise and harassment could stop him from communicating, hunting for prey or interacting with other dolphins and increase its stress levels. Follow the code of contact when spotting Albus or other dolphins.
Because Albus is such a unique animal in the Adriatic Sea we will keep updating the information on our web site and Facebook or other social media. For Albus to live happily in the Adriatic in the years to come (bottlenose dolphins live longer than 50 years), and maybe become a symbol for marine and environmental protection, you can also give your support by adopting one of our dolphins; your support will enable us to continue our work to protect Albus and others around the Adriatic Sea.